How to unscramble the alphabet soup–LGBTQIA+

Alphabet soup with brightly colored letters

[Ed. Note: This is another guest post from Katie Christensen.]

Utah is known as a conservative state—one whose cultural leaders fought against the legalization of gay marriage both here and in other states (remember Prop 8 in California?). However, earlier this year, Salt Lake City was ranked 7th in terms of LGBT population among 50 U.S. metropolitan areas. That study found that 4.7 percent of Salt Lake City residents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, which is a great sign that our capital city is becoming a more diverse space. Unfortunately, Salt Lake was also recently home to a conference held by the World Congress of Families, an anti-LGBT organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the World Congress of Families as a hate group. I don’t know about you, but because of this mashup of two completely opposing viewpoints within SLC I’ve found myself having to explain some acronyms and terminology to my more conservative friends and family members.

All of those letters–what do they mean?

“LGBTQIA+” (often shortened to “LGBT” or “GLBT”) is a coalitional term—a term used to link people with different identities together to fight for their rights. There is no way for me to explain every sexual or gender identity in one article but these are the ones I encounter most often and I’ve found it useful to have these simple definitions ready to whip out whenever someone expresses confusion or starts spreading misinformation. It’s important to remember, though, that these are self-chosen identities. Someone fitting one of these definitions doesn’t mean they necessarily identify as the term.

Lesbian: A woman who is attracted to other women.

Gay: A man who is attracted to other men (though sometimes used as an umbrella term that also includes anyone who is attracted to members of their own gender).

Bisexual: A person who is attracted to both men and women and/or a person who is attracted to all genders.

Trans*: An umbrella term that encompasses a lot of different identities, including transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, and more. Some define it as an individual who doesn’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Others use it to describe a complex relationship with sex and gender.

Queer: This is also an umbrella term that includes anyone who feels outside the norm when it comes to gender or sexuality. Historically people used it as a slur against anyone who wasn’t cisgender and/or straight. However, the younger generation has embraced it as an identity and reclaimed it as their own (similar to the way young women have embraced the word “bitch.”).

Intersex: A term used to describe biological variation that falls outside of the binary of “man” and “woman.” For example, a person may be born with a vagina and uterus and XY chromosomes. Intersex people are generally considered rare, but statistically speaking a person is about as likely to be intersex as they are to have red hair. The previously used term was “hermaphrodite,” but that term is now viewed as derogatory.

Asexual: Someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction to anyone.

Plus (+): There are so many identity terms not included in common acronyms that still need representation. Here’s a list of basic definitions for terms that don’t come up as often but are just as important.

Learning to undo binary thinking

I often hear about gender and sexual identities reduced down to gay or straight with no room in between. If a girl likes girls she’s gay. If a girl likes boys she’s straight. End of story. This is an example of a false binary. My favorite definition of “binary” in Gender Studies comes from the book Gendered Worlds by Judy Root Aulette and Judith Wittner (2015): “The idea that factors such as sex, sexuality, or gender can be categorized into two exclusive opposites” (p. 522). Upon closer look, we know that those categories aren’t binaries (i.e. intersex folks).

It’s difficult to shrug these notions of exclusive opposites because we’ve been taught to organize our thoughts into separate, distinct, opposing categories, which makes processing new information easier. But the categories we have were created by our culture and its limited understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender (making them unreliable). Even the most well-intentioned people rely on false binaries to organize thoughts, which is why it’s so important to constantly check ourselves. Every once in a while I find myself looking at a stranger and wondering if they’re a man or a woman before remembering that a) there are more than those two possibilities and b) it really shouldn’t matter to me. Fighting false binaries is a constant battle.

The World Congress of Families conference is over, but it’s only a matter of time until a public figure in Utah says something misinformed and negative about the LGBTQIA+ community, and when that happens, family dinners across the state are bound to get heated. It’s important to remember that a lot of the people you’re talking to about these issues haven’t ever questioned false binaries or been in a position to learn about different gender and sexual identities that exist (hopefully this post helps!). So be prepared to answer a lot of questions after events like the World Congress of Families, and remember that education requires patience.

Are there other terms you have questions about? Tell us in the comments!

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